Insulating Britain, enraging Britons

Insulating Britain, enraging Britons

Environmental activist group Insulate Britain are at the centre of the public consciousness as a divided society is forced to tackle a problem that requires harmony

Photo by Southwark News.

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Long read

Will Jones

The discourse surrounding climate change has always been viewed through the lens that a global environmental crisis will be with us soon. This year, for myself at least, it feels like we have entered the future that we’ve spoken about for so long; progress towards reversing it – or limiting the impending damage – is painfully slow. Whilst they remain a fairly small unit, Insulate Britain sit at the forefront of the charge against climate inaction in the UK.

Insulate Britain are an environmental activist group, focused on demanding that the government insulate all social housing in the UK by 2025 and retrofit all homes with insulation by 2030. Commencing on 13 September, they have consistently taken their message to the streets – in the true essence of the word. The climate protest collective, made up of members from Extinction Rebellion, block major roadways across the UK in a bid to cause the level of disruption that is worthy of parliament’s attention. In a nation where a new problem rears its head for the cabinet daily, their quest is one that has continued without the government’s answer for far longer than the public first imagined or hoped.

On their first day of protest, they sat down and blocked five M25 road junctions. As a frequenter of this hellish autoroute, I can confirm that it can sustain a hefty traffic delay without the need for activist roadblocks. This was one avoidable disruption too many in the eyes of the public (who had probably already been stuck in traffic for four hours prior).

M25 protests: activists block traffic for second day this week | News | The  Times
Photo by The Times.

Near identical M25-centric protests continued for the following week, before an ambitious demonstration that blocked both sides of the main M25 carriageway cemented Insulate Britain as a serious – and highly divisive – activist group. 38 protesters were arrested for various charges: criminal damage, causing danger to road users, wilful obstruction of the highway and causing a public nuisance. On the 24 September, they blockaded the entrance to the Port of Dover, resulting in further delays to an already Brexit- and COVID-hampered supply chain.

The same number of protesters were arrested when the group obstructed the Blackwall Tunnel, the primary thoroughfare between northeast and southeast London. This is where the narrative surrounding Insulate Britain truly changed. Before this point, they were seen as an annoying but semi-meaningless band of middle-class eco warriors. When a video emerged of a distressed woman pleading with protesters to free up the tunnel so she could visit her sick mother in hospital, the discourse became more emotionally charged.

In tears, the woman frantically explained that her 81-year-old mother had been taken to a hospital in Canterbury in an ambulance:

“I need to go to the hospital, please let me pass. This isn’t okay… how can you be so selfish?”

The video was a hard watch and not a good look for Insulate Britain. Craig Scudder, spokesman for the group, responded by telling Sky News that it was “devastating” to have to delay the woman but that the group’s “hands were forced” by government inaction. Insulate Britain, in their own words, would much rather the media focused on the government’s lack of response and inability to commit to the group’s demands rather than the spectacle and backlash of the roadblocks. However, as humans I think we find much more interest in the steadfastness of activists and the angry response from the public than any form of policy making. #InsulateBritain was the number one trend on Twitter in the UK, and perhaps it’s no surprise that the timeline was full of enraged users inciting violence against the group rather than people tweeting ‘@BorisJohnson, please #InsulateBritain so that they stop blocking the roads!!!’.

Insulate Britain suspended their demonstrations on 14 October, stating that the government had 11 days to produce “a meaningful or trustworthy statement” or the protests would resume. On the 25 October, still without a statement, 61 activists stuck to their promise and blocked multiple roads across London.

Their efforts have not gone entirely unnoticed in the cabinet, however. Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned the group, deliberately citing their actions as she unveiled her plan for increased penalties for motorway disruptions, criminalisation of infrastructure disruption and “stop and search” powers for the police. On 4 October, in his typical brash and mildly offensive manner, Boris Johnson stated that Insulate Britain were “irresponsible crusties”. Admittedly, this wasn’t a word I was familiar with, but a quick look at an online dictionary cleared it up for me:

Noun

crusty (plural crusties)

  1. (chiefly Britain, informal) A tramp or homeless young person with poor cleanliness.
  2. (chiefly Britain and Ireland, informal) A member of an urban subculture with roots in punk and grebo, characterized by anti-establishment attitudes and an unkempt appearance.

From my own analysis though, this doesn’t seem to be the Insulate Britain demographic; the group is made up of people of all ages and life stages. When a video emerged of a protester with ink on his face, fired at him by an angry motorist, the victim was an elderly gentleman. As news crews rushed to film his reaction, he stated:

“It’s sad. The whole thing is sad. It’s sad that we have to do this. I hate doing this. I’m a retired doctor, I’ve spent my life trying to help people and I’m reduced to having to do this because the government won’t address the problem adequately.”

Fuming motorists chuck ink at Insulate Britain protesters as they prepare  to block A40 - Daily Star
The inked protester addresses the camera. Photo by GHR London News.

The fact that the public are more infuriated by a band of environmentalists whose mission is to protect our future – in this case, elderly environmentalists who have dedicated their lives to public service – than a government who consistently fail to deliver meaningful climate change action, is a deeply tragic indictment of the country we’ve been become. I’m not going to stand here and expound that Insulate Britain are a perfect, unproblematic entity because being pro-blocking someone from visiting their ill mother is a strange hill to die on. However, I would like to think that the majority of people could look past a short-term minor disruption on their daily life and accept that the climate crisis is a much greater issue with much greater repercussions.

In response to the notion that Insulate Britain are only furthering people’s disregard for the climate, I would argue that if one protest group puts us off tackling a problem with the enormity of the climate crisis, then maybe our collective priorities are skewed.

Photograph by Andrew Aitchison for Getty Images.

The violent reaction to these demonstrations worries me. Footage of motorists semi-running over activists has been widely circulated. In many instances, the public have taken it into their own hands and dragged protesters from the tarmac. For the first time, it feels as though people believe they’ve been given a right to physically assault demonstrators because they’re disrupting their day. The climate crisis, however, will disrupt our lives considerably more than a small, targeted delay that prevents us from taking our conventional route.

As a woman unleashed her rage on protesters in a video that went viral, the camera panned across to reveal her Range Rover taking her one child to school. She ‘didn’t care’ for the cause, she just wanted to be able to drive through and carry on with her day. The depressing reality is that a large segment of the population won’t consider slightly altering their ways. Humans despise change. People will cling on to anything to try and deny that the climate crisis is real and with us now, and I don’t entirely blame them. We are sleepwalking into a pretty terrifying reality.

Insulate Britain, whilst flawed, are at least trying to do something, and for that, I just can’t hate them in the way the rest of the country seem to. Someone needs to stand up (or sit down) against a society that is repeatedly sabotaging itself, and Insulate Britain, whether we like it or not, seem to be those people.